There’s already a lot to take in when learning a new language – vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar rules, and so on. But one of the most challenging aspects of learning a new language is grappling with speech sounds that do not even exist in one’s own language, such as these four difficult sounds for English speakers.
The first step in mastering any challenging sound is perceiving it accurately, which is often easier said than done. Research has shown that while newborns are capable of learning any sound in any language, by the age of six months, exposure to their native language reduces the ability to perceive speech sounds that don’t exist in that language. At just half a year old, people transform from language universalists to language specialists. By this age, Japanese infants cannot distinguish between the English ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds, while babies in Spanish-speaking countries can’t hear the difference between our ‘b’ and ‘v’ sounds.
Don’t worry though – being an expert in your native language doesn’t preclude you from becoming one in your newly learned language. It just takes a little bit more work. Careful listening over an extended period of time is the first step toward being able to produce those unfamiliar speech sounds, and reading articles like this one can also give you insights on what to listen for. Once you’ve identified the sounds that you’re having trouble with, all that’s left to do is practice, practice, and more practice.
The following are four of the most difficult sounds for English-speakers to master in other languages. If you can get them down, you’ll be on your way to sounding like a native speaker.
Mandarin Chinese – Second (Rising) Tone
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the tone – or pitch – of a word is essential to conveying its meaning. Because of this feature, an entire sentence can be composed of words that look the same, but are pronounced using different tones. For example, “Mā má mǎ mà ma,” can be translated as “Mom is bothered by the horse’s scolding.”
Because English uses tone changes to convey emotion rather than meaning, it often takes extensive practice to effectively shift tones from one syllable to the next. The second tone, which rises rapidly from the middle to the high end of the vocal range (as seen in “má”), is often especially difficult for English speakers.
Spanish, Italian, and Others – The Tongue Trill
You’ll sound more like a native Spanish or Italian speaker if you learn how roll, or trill, your ‘r.’ In fact, both the rolled ‘r’ and the un-rolled ‘r’ are features of Spanish, and the use of one versus the other can cause a change in meaning. For example, the word carro (double ‘r’ signifying the trill) means car, while caro (single ‘r’ signifying that it’s unrolled) means expensive. Same goes for perro (dog) versus pero (but).
Beginner Spanish and Italian students often panic as they try to roll their ‘r’s for the first time. The tongue can feel stuck in place, and some learners worry that they will never be able to produce the trill. Marc Ettlinger, PhD in Linguistics from UC Berkeley, says that’s unlikely to be the case. A new learner simply needs to get the muscle tension and positioning right, which can take a good deal of practice (even for young Spanish speakers). Up until then, no need to despair. Contextual clues are usually enough for native speakers to figure out what is being said, even when an unrolled ‘r’ accidentally stands in for a rolled one.
Arabic – Letter ح
A lot of English speakers have a hard time producing the Arabic letter ح, which is similar to the English ‘h,’ except that it is aspirated. When a sound is aspirated, it means that a small puff of air is released along with it. Think of the name Pat. If you say it loudly, you’ll notice that it almost sounds like there’s an ‘h’ inserted after the ‘p’ – ‘p-hat.’ That’s the sound of the puff of air being released during the aspirated ‘p.’
In English, the ‘h’ sound is unaspirated. We don’t produce it with a puff of air, and learning how to do so can be quite tricky. Some people recommend that learners imagine blowing out the candles on a birthday cake with an ‘h’ sound in order to make the Arabic ح. If you try this, be sure to keep your lips relaxed, rather than pursed.
Icelandic – The Double L
Students of Icelandic often struggle with the ‘ll’ sound, which is pronounced somewhat similarly to an English ‘tl’ or ‘dl,’ as in the word ‘turtle.’
The difficulty arises because, in contrast to the English ‘l,’ Icelandic double l is unvoiced, meaning that the vocal cords do not vibrate during its production. To better understand this idea, think of the English sounds ‘s’ and ‘z.’ If you put your fingers to your throat while you make each of these sounds, you’ll only be able to feel a vibration with the ‘z’ sound. That’s because ‘z’ is a voiced sound in English, while ‘s’ is unvoiced.
Icelandic ‘ll’ is unvoiced, and requires air to be pushed out of the sides of the mouth during its production, which can be difficult for English speakers to wrap their heads around. Some recommend practicing by saying ‘turtle,’ but leaving the tongue in the ‘t’ position while trying to say the ‘le’ part.
Once you get the double l down, you’ll be able to accurately pronounce the word jökull, which means “glacier” in English.
ALTA Language Services provides comprehensive language training programs, including accent training, that can help you reach your pronunciation goals. If you’re looking to become a more effective communicator, contact ALTA today.
About the author:
Danielle Martin has taught multiple subjects to students in three different states. She previously spent time as a literary agent’s assistant and video editor. Danielle writes about education, health, and lifestyle topics, and she also enjoys writing fiction.